Thursday, August 26, 2010

Rosanne's Reasons Why Writing is Easier than Parenting

I’ve noticed several correlations between writing and parenting since I started doing both simultaneously about 12 years ago. In fact, there are several correlations between writing and life as well. This comes to mind as I contemplate my second guest blog entry for Dawn because I’m faced with the toughest of all those correlations – choice. I can write about whatever I want, but I only have this one space and time to present that piece of writing, therefore how do I choose which story, which topic to tell before I go? That’s exactly the conflict created in parenting. I don’t like football so when my son asks to play on this year’s team do I choose to say ‘No’ simply because that’s my choice for his life and as his parent I get to make that choice? Or do I choose to say ‘Yes’ precisely because it is his life and therefore his choice? Whichever choice I make will have a definite effect on the story of his life. He’s either a jock or a geek, potentially a buff dude or a slightly pudgy brainiac, possibly a popular-with-the-girls guy who gets his girlfriend pregnant or a mama’s boy. Talk about too many choices!

With characters on paper the only real consequence to a writer’s choice is how marketable the characters with those chosen personalities will be to producers and potential audiences. With my son, the consequence is his life, his happiness, his future. So what’s a mother to do?

When I talk to folks who profess a desire to be writers, many times they’ll tell me the plethora of stories they intend to write, as soon as they can choose which one to do first. Consequently, those types of folks rarely write anything – why – because they can’t even make that first, critical choice. How would they ever make the myriad choices required to finish the script and then choose what types of studios to market the piece? Writing then is merely choosing – parenting is choosing well with little chance for rewriting and/or re-choosing. See, here’s the deal. Last year, in 6th grade, all the boys but two were on the B Boys Football team. Guess who one of the two was? Yep, cause I have had a definite dislike of most sports, but mostly football (and it’s not just based on being turned down for the Sadie Hawkins Dance by a guy on the football team – Augie Markuzic was his name, see how choosing to ask him effects me 30 years later?).

So I steered my son to baseball – the gentleman’s sport (or at least it used to be). I even heard baseball described by one of the coaches as ‘the chess of organized sports’. You want met to choose your sport for my son, compare it to chess -- or anything else I imagine they play in the hallowed halls of Harvard. Heck, I even chose to let him have a go at hockey for a couple of seasons because that’s the sport Ryan O’Neal played when he played Harvard student Oliver Barrett IV in Love Story all those rerun years ago. But football? Please. Interestingly enough, though I’ve chosen geeky pursuits for my son (chess club, robot club, Lego First League) and he has enjoyed them, he hasn’t become the class geek. Some part of him inherently has jock inside and that part of him keeps wanting to join the other jocks on that football field. Funny thing is, I like the dad who volunteers to coach and I like the idea of daily exercise and practice and lots of the things that go with sports like discipline and strategy. But I don’t like the aggression, the possible injury, the potential for arrogance, …

In my generation we grew up with the ad line “Choosy Mothers Choose Jiff”. What keeps running through my mind right now is, do Choosy Mothers Choose Football? Or do they hold their ground and say, “We’re just not a football family.” That’s a fair choice. I read where astronaut Shannon Lucid took each of her three kids up in an airplane within a week of their births because they were a flying family and she wanted to let her kids know, “You joined our family, we didn’t join your family.” I’m good with that. Then again, parenting forces me to face the (very frightening fact) that at some point I stop being the one who makes the choices in the story of his life. Is this the time?

If dying is easy and comedy is hard, parenting is (sometimes) impossible!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Rosanne's Reasons Why "Eat, Pray, Love" Ought to be in the Parenting Section

I’m going to begin by honestly confessing that I read Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert this week on the excuse that I needed to in order to discuss adaptations in my writing classes. Then I have to confess that I loved it. Sure, the author wallows a bit much in her lousy divorce during the Italy section rather than giving me more Italy, and yes the ending is a bit fairytale princess-y for me. But it also stayed true to a theme I first read in the 1970s in a piece of teen girl lit that had been published back in 1946 – Going on Sixteen by Betty Cavanna. The theme of both pieces is: You have to be yourself before anyone else can love you. ‘Cause if you perfect the art of being someone else and then someone falls in love with that fabrication, it will end badly for both of you.

That’s a long lead in to this week’s guest posting for Dawn while she’s enjoying a couple weeks on what I like to teasingly call her ‘Family Estate’ on Martha’s Vineyard. I’m pleased to be asked to fill in for her as we so enjoy working together (though, of course, this doesn’t involve us even being in the same room, which is the only bummer).

So what does Eat, Pray, Love have to do with parenting? That question takes us right back to my love of the theme. It’s my sincere belief that this may be the greatest lesson we teach our children in their time with us – to love who they are and not try to be anything else, certainly not merely to attract someone to them. Funny how humans need to keep being told the same thing over and over again before it finally sinks in. But it is not funny to realize how many adults I’ve met over my career who were never taught this. And ya’ know what that means? Massive amounts of insecure grown-ups leading lives of not-so-quiet desperation as our trouble-making, diva-bad-behaving bosses, neighbors and friends. Who wants to raise their kid to be those people? And yet, somehow, so many people do. I imagine it’s not the kind of thing we often realize, especially if we had no self-esteem given to us in our own childhoods. But that means we have to work on our own security issues so we don’t pass that on down to our kids, which in the end is true to our entire career as parents – it’s our job not to continue negative cycles.

What is does NOT mean is that we compliment them every time they do something as basic as taking dishes to the kitchen or emptying the dishwasher. Or that we give them participation ribbons for merely being on a team or taking part in some practically mandatory event such as a school fundraising Jogathon. That kind of behavior creates the silliness we read about now where the current generation of overly-complimented kids need to be thanked for showing up to work on time in the ‘real’ world. I fervently doubt it teaches them they are special as it is clear everyone is getting the same participation ribbon, trophy or medal.

Face it folks, we’ve raised a particularly smart bunch of kids in the last generation or so and they catch on quick when an award means nothing. My favorite story on that count comes from the First Grade Science Fair my son’s school ran to give them a taste for choosing a topic, doing age-appropriate research and filling out those 3-part foam core boards. Our school even had judges come in and interview all the children about their projects. Because one of the parents before the event vociferously insisted that awarding place ribbons (first, second and third) would cause crying among the children who didn’t win, the whole class full of parents decided not to award any place ribbons. When the judges were through and the students all streamed back into the auditorium I watched my son grab the ribbon off his project and shout to the kid next to him, “I won a ribbon!” But then that other kid said, “So did I.” They proceeded to compare their ribbons and found that they were identical participation ribbons. Then they proceeded to toss the ribbons on the ground and go back to checking out each other’s displays, wondering who received the ‘real’ ribbons.

I take that lesson into the orientation classes I teach at local colleges. In the last class it is recommended that we get the students in groups and have them come up with award titles for the kids in the other groups so that everyone is acknowledged for having taken part in the class. You already know how I feel about that philosophy so what do you think I do? I explain that idea to the students, then I tell them the story about the First Grade Science Fair ribbons, and then I hand out large chocolate bars to the top 5 or 7 or 9 kids (no need to round out to an even 10 if an even 10 didn’t stand out in my mind) with silly awards written on the wrapper such as “Contributing in Class King” or “Most Attentive” or “Best Reader”. Heck, I even do “Most Likely to Succeed in College” ‘cause it’s such an American icon.

Anyway, I highly recommend Eat, Pray, Love (and Going on Sixteen) and any other reading that reminds us of this all important lesson that we must love ourselves as we are.

AND if any of you are writers out there and need my adaptation-studying excuse for reading Gilbert’s book, then I also recommend the Written By Magazine article about adapting Eat, Pray, Love into a movie which you can read online at:

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Grinch Who Stole Summer

I can’t take credit for that title. I read it in an article written by David Von Drehle in Time Magazine. The article was called, “The Case Against Summer Vacation.” I meant to read it weeks ago, but somehow, with all the summer activities, I couldn’t find the time. So last night, I discovered it buried on my desk with all the other things that in addition to cleaning my office, I meant to accomplish during June, July and August. And now August is here and almost gone. Summer has raced by and as I notice that the swimsuits are now moving to the clearance rack at Target –all the better for someone else to buy and expose their cellulite – I am begrudgingly realizing that fall will soon be on us, the kids will be back to school, and in less than two months, I’ll start worrying about getting ready for the holidays.

So why is David Von Drehle's article suggesting we put the kibosh on summer vacation? He and the reformers he writes about are trying to do away with the traditional concept of summer vacation because they believe that during that time, children are susceptible to the “Summer Slide” in learning achievement. They argue that in those 8 to 10 weeks that kids are not in school, they suffer learning loss, which is most detrimental to the most vulnerable group of children, those from low income families who do not have access to camps or enrichment programs during the summer which can prevent that learning loss. These kids are already at risk and the summer break only worsens the condition. Drehle states that, “By ninth grade, summer learning loss could be blamed for roughly two-thirds of the achievement gap separating income groups.” For students who already struggle to overcome significant odds in order to get an education, this lack of educational enrichment can take a tremendous toll. And in a country where the divide between the haves and have nots is growing greater by the nanosecond, the implications of this are troubling.

I've always had an idyllic view of summer. As a kid, it meant sleep away camp, family car trips to visit relatives, trips to the beach. As an adult, I still relish the summertime, the longer days, the sense of peace that comes with breaking from the rush about routine of the school year. In February, my daughters and I went to a camp fair to look at all the different kinds of camps and enrichment activities they could take part in. We took brochures for one or two and then mulled over our options through the rainy L.A. winter trying to make our summer plans come into focus. This year we did a traditional outdoorsy camp a couple of days a week, supplemented by two amazing young women who babysat my kids on their off-camp days, working with them on math and reading, piano, cooking and crafts. They helped my gals do lemonade and snow cone stands, sell homemade soap and sand sculptures – clearly my daughters have an entrepreneurial streak – but I’m afraid I’m going to come home one day and find my furniture for sale on the sidewalk. One of the sitters even had them clean out their closets! (I say a little thank you every time I open Nicole’s dresser drawer.) Overall we got through the summer with enough stimulation so that my gals won’t be hit with too much summer sliding. But we can afford it, if only barely. What about in families where camp or super sitters aren’t an option? Maybe summer is, as the Time article suggests, an outdated idea which dates back to when America was a farm based economy and kids had to leave school in the summer to go work the crops and help with harvests. Maybe we should abolish summer vacation all together to avoid having kids suffer learning loss, or be left without supervision, and in some cases hungry – those roughly 30 million kids who get free or reduced price school breakfasts and lunches during the school year don’t get those meals during the summer and many of them simply go without until classes start again in the fall. Maybe the idea of summer vacation doesn't work anymore.

They tried year round school in our area for a while but it seemed to be a special kind of hell for the parents whose kids were in it because the district didn’t do it in a uniform fashion so only some schools were on year round and others weren’t. If you had one kid in a year round and another in a traditional calendar school, your kids were never off at the same time and you could never go away on a vacation without having to pull someone out of class. Also, most of the summer camps and enrichment programs are set up for the June to August period, so the families that had kids in the year round schools and would have them home for a weeks at a time in November or February found that they never had enough choices for child care coverage, no camps to step in and watch the kids from 9 to 6. It was pretty much a nightmare that seemed to go away quietly after continued parental protest. There are still a few around, but I think the grand plan to turn all LAUSD schools into year round schools died a needed death.

I would hate the idea of being in school year round. I like summer and all it represents - vacations, picnics, beach days, star watching, playing out in the yard until the street lights come on, roasting marshmellows over a bonfire, BBQs, concerts in the park and yes, summer camp. I like knowing that there are 8 to 10 weeks where we can feel a break from the rest of the year. We try to address our own personal summer slide issues, but as a nation, we can’t ignore the fact that there are significant numbers of children for whom summer is not a joyful time. I love the back-to-school backpack drives that ask families to assemble a backpack to donate to a child from a low income family who may not get new school supplies or back-to-school clothing. Maybe we need to address the summer vacation disparity in the same way. Perhaps, just as we support back to school efforts, we can support programs in our community which provide summer enrichment activities for kids who don’t have the options that many of our children have. Next summer, my daughters and I are excited to volunteer for a week at a summer camp for children from low income families who have sickle cell disease. It provides the kids a camp experience they might otherwise not have, a chance to get away and forget about being sick for a while, but at the same time gives them the medical support they need. This is a great program, but there are many, many more across the country which could use your support.

So when February comes around - and it will be here faster than you can say, "What happened to 2010," and you start worrying about what camp to stick your kids in for summer camp to give them a stimulating, fun experience, (and so you can get some work done and have a moment’s peace), consider reaching out to a program or group that helps all kids enjoy the same kind of summers we remember – ones full of fun, play, and the kind of learning that comes from experiences you can’t get in the classroom, but only during the lazy days of summer.

You can read the Time article at,8599,2005654,00.html.
Oh, just wanted to let you know that for the next couple of weeks my friend Rosanne Welch is going to be guest blogging for me. In addition to being co-author and co-editor with me on our parenting book, Three Ring Circus, Rosanne is completing her dissertation at Claremont Graduate University on the work of married screenwriter couples in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, teaches One-Hour Drama writing at California State University, Fullerton and UCLA Extension, and is a tv writer whose credits include Beverly Hills 90210, Picket Fences, Touched by an Angel and a two-part documentary for ABC NEWS/Nightline entitled Bill Clinton and the Boys Nation Class of 1963. So have a read and enjoy. I've gotten some of my best advice from Rosanne about a number of things from personal to career stuff. Although she claims that my advice convinced her to have a child when she was on the fence. Apparently, during a hike, when she said she wasn't sure she wanted to have a baby, I said, "At the very least, think of it this way, why would you deny yourself the opportunity to do something that only 1/2 the people on the planet can do?" So she had a baby. Clearly, I need to be careful what I say to people. But over a dozen years later, she was a really cool kid who smashed (lovingly) cake in my daughter's face on her first birthday and has taught both my girls to answer the phone with a professionalism which rivals any assistant I've ever had. Rosanne's son is great, so I guess I give pretty good advice, too. But if you're trying not to have a baby, I suggest you don't go hiking with me.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Mommy as a Four Letter Word

Okay, so the word mommy has more than four letters, but my point is, I actually heard someone use the word mommy as an insult. And you know what? It was more hurtful than being called a bitch...and a bitch is a female dog and capable of motherhood, too, so maybe his insult made sense. I was at the grocery store and a woman pushing her baby in a stroller and this guy were getting into some conflict concerning produce. I wandered into the controversy after it started, but from what I could gather, the woman had said something to this man about tasting the fruit while it was still in the store and before he had paid for it. A pet peeve of mine as well, but I don't think I'm bold enough (or do I care enough or have enough time on my hands) to worry about whether or not some stranger pulls a couple of grapes out of the bag and tosses them into his mouth. But she did. And after a few real four letter words were exchanged between them, the woman started to push her stroller away and as a parting shot the guy said, "See you around, mommy." He said the word mommy in such a twisted, derogatory way, so mean and hurtful that I could see the woman flinch as his words hit home. The way he used it was so mean-spirited and filled with such contempt that I cringed a little, too.

What about calling her mommy was an insult? I'm sure she loves her kids, just as much as I do. And I'm betting all the grapes in that bag that she's proud of being a mother. But in a way, I get his insult and I've felt it's sting myself. No matter how much this woman may have accomplished in her life - she might be a two time Nobel prize winning scientist with degrees from multiple ivy league schools, fluent in French, a skilled jazz pianist and sit on the board of several charitable organizations, but to some, no matter what she has accomplished or even dreams of accomplishing, it will always be overshadowed by one thing - her kids. And sometimes let your mom-side be paramount in your life isn't such a bad thing. But by calling her "Mommy" he reduced her (perhaps not for the first time) to a person who has no other identity -- and that's hurtful, scary and a feeling that most mothers seem to battle with from time to time.

I've talked with moms who were lawyers or surgeons and they complain that they feel like they are getting dumber by staying home to take care of their children. As much as they enjoy staying home it and chose to do it, they feel like they are losing a large part of themselves which had once been defined by work. They feel as if they are losing track of knowledge in their fields, and have been redefined by their peers and accorded less respect because of having children - even if they went back to work. They feel as if being a mother is crashing in on them. And sometimes it does.

I saw a conference presentation recently, an analysis of a novel called Cane, by Jean Toomer, which I remember reading years and years ago. I didn't get it then, but today it resonated with a depth that surprised me and reminded me of the woman in the grocery store I'd seen almost reduced to tears earlier in the week. The premise of the book was that words are incapable of fully describing identity. And in a way, he's right. No one word can ever truly capture a person's identity and it is painful to try to find your identity when there is no all encompassing way to describe it. Words as labels can attempt to describe parts of who a person is, like the woman in the grocery store being called a mother, that is her identity, but she is so much more. And the inability of that word to encompass all the things she is - all the things a mother is - lifegiver, caregiver, teacher, researcher, chef, nutritionist, entertainer, CFO, COO, supervisor, driver, domestic engineer, gardener - on top of whatever career or aspirations defined her before having kids.

Perhaps it is the collision of identities that people struggle with or how our identities morph over time - whether we want them to or not - that is the most difficult for people to accept. I had a strained phone conversation with someone recently, and as he struggled for something positive to say to me, all he could come up with was, "You're such a good mommy." The word mommy stung me. It came out as a put down. It came out as something he said because he didn't know any other part of who I am, so he chose that word to define me. And in his mind, no matter what I've done or what I might do in life, I was nothing more than a mommy. His words made me mad. At first I felt funny for being upset by what was supposed to be a compliment, for being upset for being called something I enjoy and am proud to do. But I realized that I was angered because I knew that I, like the woman in the grocery store, had more going on than that, but to him,the word, mommy, was my only identity.

So I tried to think of what I would have said to the man in the grocery store if he had tauntingly called me a mommy. I came up with several not so clever come backs (something I am notorious for in my family - ah, yet another identity - bad comedian), and then I struck on my favorite, a few choice words to define his identity, at least partially, in a way that told him exactly how I felt about him. If he had called me a mommy, I would have said, "Have a nice day, grape stealer!"